Government

On the table: the future of West Berkeley

Manufacturing businesses and vacancies on Carleton Street in West Berkeley/Photo: John Osborn

The Berkeley City Council held the first of two public hearings Tuesday about proposed changes for West Berkeley that could drastically alter the landscape of the city’s economy in years to come.

The changes would relax protections that have been in place for years over what types of business the city are allowed within the West Berkeley industrial area, particularly those focused on research and development. But there are concerns that the proposed changes could lead to an expansion of residential development and could dramatically increase property values to the point of pushing out small businesses.

Citing remarks made at Berkeleyside’s Local Business Forum this week by Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, Berkeley’s Mayor Tom Bates commented on the rapidly changing economic framework of the 21st century, where entire business operations can be organized online among a number of participants worldwide. He specifically talked about the need to tap the city’s greatest resources: UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Both institutions are churning out talented and hungry entrepreneurs who are flocking elsewhere to start up businesses. LBNL is also scouting for a second campus site with West Berkeley as an outside contender for its choice.

“This whole thing is changing so rapidly and dramatically it’s hard to keep up with,” Bates said. “If you don’t change, you die.”

The changes being proposed have been more than three years in the making. The Planning Commission has held a number of meetings over the past two years to hash out recommendations on how facilitate development of large industrial properties and encourage growth for research and development, while ensuring that the small businesses currently located there don’t get pushed out.

Concerns have been over talent from the city’s education institutions leaving for places such as Emeryville and Palo Alto to found technology start-ups. Meanwhile, West Berkeley has not reached its projected employment of 3,100 as outlined in its plan; it has been losing jobs over the years, especially in manufacturing. The final product of these meetings was a set of proposals that would modify the zoning and plans for the West Berkeley area; the Planning Commission adopted the recommendations 7-2 on October 13, 2010.

Among the most significant changes being proposed are modifications to areas of West Berkeley currently locked into certain types of development. Currently, parcels are set up for manufacturing, mixed-use light industrial, mixed-use residential, and mixed manufacturing. Allowable uses include manufacturing, wholesale, warehouse, and material recovery, and protections exist to ensure that any business that doesn’t fit that mold cannot take root there.

The city gives out what are called Master Use Permits to dictate control over developments in West Berkeley. Similar to a conditional use permit, an MUP requires a public process before being approved, and it is used to negotiate certain terms for the project to be approved.

Under the proposed changes, the city would offer perks to developers in exchange for carrots for the community through these MUPs. Perks could include expanding the list of allowable uses within West Berkeley, relaxing certain space protections such as height limits, and allowing for increased development potential. Community benefits could come in the form of expanded job training and placement opportunities, development of non-automotive transportation systems, and preservation of the artisan community.

Although the plan proposes allowing five new uses in these protected areas, only one — research and development — has the greatest potential to encourage new business growth, and is also the source of the plan’s strongest criticism.

Berkeley’s Economic Development Director Michael Caplan said emerging technology is the face of the 21st century economy, and that the city had an R&D pipeline via the university and laboratory. He said the city is missing out, with between 15 to 25 licensed technicians trained in a variety of emerging techs — such as nanoscience or building material science — leaving every year to establish start-ups elsewhere throughout the Bay Area.

“This is very important for the West Berkeley economy,” Caplan said during the study session before the hearing.” (Emerging technology) is a classic high value-added industry.”

Rick Auerbach, a representative of the West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies, questioned whether the proposed changes would leave artisans without safeguards during the study session. He was concerned that the changes would deindustrialize the area over time, and raise rent prices to the point of pushing out businesses that couldn’t pay.

This comes from concern that R&D businesses are a mixture of office and industrial, and the nature of the business may increase property values in the areas where they are located.

Auerbach said there was plenty of space currently available to R&D companies, and that jobs not requiring college degrees are not meeting demand, while jobs requiring such degrees over over-employing.

“It’s completely unnecessary,” Auerbach said of the changes, “and destructive to our vital economy and equity.”

Chris Farlow, for the West Berkeley Property Owners, disagreed. During the study session, he explained how difficult it is to start and maintain a business in Berkeley, and that the changes could provide the incentives needed to attract new businesses. He added the city had a “monstrous opportunity” in trying to land the planned second Lawrence Berkeley Lab in West Berkeley.

“Protectionism has been one of the key barriers to Berkeley growth,” Farlow said.

At the regular City Council meeting, where about 45 members of the public lined up to speak on the issue, several West Berkeley business owners spoke of how existing zoning protections had helped them grow their companies. They included Michael McEwen of McEwen Lighting who is moving from Emeryville to a building on 9th Street, and Tom Adams of Adams & Chittenden Glass on 8th Street.

Meghan Pressman, Associate Managing Director of Berkeley Rep, which recently moved its main operations from downtown to West Berkeley, spoke of the theatre’s excitement about being part of such a vibrant community. She also stressed the need for the arts to be an integral part of the new plan.

Michael McBride, a pastor at The Way Christan Center, said this issue wasn’t about being anti-development or being pro-development, but about providing jobs and opportunities to the community’s most vulnerable families. And, as the process moves forward, he said there had to be clear and viable community benefits in whatever agreements are made.

“As a pastor I know,” McBride said, “the devil is always in the details.”

The second hearing on the West Berkeley plan will be on February 8. Visit the city of Berkeley’s website for agendas, videos and podcasts of Tuesday’s special meeting and the regular City Council meeting at which hearings were also conducted.

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  • Tim C.

    So, if LBL locates there in a deal with the University, it would remove a large parcel from the tax rolls, yes? And don’t they already have a nice big piece of land in Richmond where they could locate their 2nd campus? Why not just designate the large empty parcels instead of the entire area? So who made noise last night?

  • Name Withheld

    “Auerbach said there was plenty of space currently available to R&D companies, and that jobs not requiring college degrees are not meeting demand, while jobs requiring such degrees over over-employing.”

    Auerbach needs to face the music – Berkeley is too high-rent to sustain businesses that employ primarily unskilled laborers. Trying to force manual-labor manufacturing businesses into West Berkeley won’t work as long as there are nearby cities with significantly cheaper costs.

  • Bruce Love

    @Name Withheld: That’s a fallacy that is shaping this debate wrong: “Berkeley is too high-rent to sustain businesses that employ primarily unskilled laborers.”

    You are saying R&D is all about highly skilled workers and manufacturing is all about unskilled workers. That’s wrong, almost backwards, even though it sounds so plausible. Times have changed.

    A big biotech research lab, say, is going to have a small number of jobs for people with advanced degrees, plus a whole lot of jobs for unskilled labor and labor with just a little bit of vocational training. It needs security, secretarial, office management, low level lab tech and then some PhDs.

    You are saying, I think, “Let’s emphasize skilled labor by making these changes” when there’s a strong case to be made that if you want to emphasize skilled labor: avoid these changes!

    Modern high value light manufacturing is much more about skilled labor and training (both academic and non-academic). You need mechanics who can fix machines. You need engineers who can improvise effective processes. Odds are you need computer programmers. As much as possible, you are trying to automate or engineer away the need for unskilled folks working an assembly line. Man, if you want to see a good example of lots of seats filled with low skilled workers working an assembly line, go look at industrial scale biotech R&D!

    Berkeley should plan for the next big thing, not the last big thing. The West Berkeley Plan we have, without the changes, is a really foresightful document. It plans to take solid and timeless advantage of the geographic advantages of Oceanside. It excludes the kind of businesses that don’t need the natural advantages of Oceanside. It’s a very wise plan even if we’re right now in a slump and we should not be so eager to muck it up.

  • Alan Tobey

    LBNL’s stated motivations are interesting here: they want to consolidate existing scattered programs and operations into one new second contiguous facility in large part because they have learned from a half century up the hill that informal and accidental interactions among people in different specialties are one important source of the bright ideas that drive innovative results. (For that reason, Richmond being too far to make that interactivity easy gives Berkeley its best argument.)

    We can apply that practical learning to what could happen in West Berkeley, where a concentration of R&D companies and people (and yes, maybe even LBNL) can create the kind of “ecosystem of innovation” that has made Silicon Valley bloom. That takes more than a few scattered startup companies just chasing their own cheap rent in isolation.

    On the other hand, the current lack of success works more like a negative ecosystem in discouraging new participants who would feel isolated — why do we think perpetuating a marginally failing district is what we should encourage? I really don’t understand the counter argument to make no changes: it’s like patronizingly saying we need to keep the poor parts of town poor so we won’t run out of impoverished citizens we can help with our charity. Instead it’s the whole district that needs to be started on a new path of interactive evolutionary success in ways we know can work.

  • Name Withheld

    @Bruce Love

    You’re big on talk, and short on examples. Sticking with things the way they are has gotten us a bunch of empty warehouses and storefronts. Why are you so opposed to change when it’s clearly needed?

  • Eva Carleton

    West Berkeley needs some revitalization (probably more than less). The West Berkeley plan that was created in the 90’s has not had the desired effect – because if it had, we would have a vibrant community of businesses that employ all types of workers, clean neighborhoods, services, and not all the empty lots, slumlord buildings etc. I do love the creative aspect of West Berkeley, and there has to be some other way that allows the artistry and innovation to continue in spaces that are affordable. I am all in favor that artists and people starting out their business ideas have the ability to get affordable space, and when they continue to grow, the zoning is right so they can stay easily stay in the community. We do have two artists’s buildings in West Berkeley – the one on 8th Street which I have heard continues to exist because of a benevolent landlord and Activspace (not sure how they are organized). Perhaps each commercial landlord makes a small part of his/her space available to start-ups at decent costs and/or artists? Or perhaps some artist-cooperative (with the help of the city) can be established to allow artists to buy/rent space in buildings (like a cluster) at fair prices.

    While I want West Berkeley to develop (for sure!), I also want to keep the diversity, the artists, the pioneers – is there not a creative solution that allows for a win/win?

  • Eric Panzer

    Bruce, your rhetorical and logical gymnastics are gold medal material.

    “A big biotech research lab, say, is going to have a small number of jobs for people with advanced degrees, plus a whole lot of jobs for unskilled labor and labor with just a little bit of vocational training.”

    From what I can tell, this is simply not true; if you have data, I’d love to see it. Graduate degrees are not the sole hallmark of skilled work: people with vocational training and/or undergraduate degrees are nearly always considered skilled as well. Employers like Google, Genentech, and LBL have far more skilled than unskilled workers.

    Since the implementation of the previous West Berkeley plan, the area has shed manufacturing jobs, these jobs have not been replaced by other sectors, and consequently, West Berkeley has failed to experience its projected job growth. Some foresightful document! We should protect and attract what manufacturing we can, but not to the exclusion of promising industries. What we are doing now is not working: firms that would consider establishing in Berkeley opt for cities with more flexible zoning and less bewildering planning processes.

    You say Berkeley should plan for the next big thing. Yet you push for manufacturing–a sector that has been in decline for nearly 50 years. It’s ironic that you refer to “Oceanside” [sic]. The industrial community of Ocean View was formally incorporated into the City of Berkeley in the year 1878. Talk about the “last big thing.” Given that the docks and rail yards are nearly all gone; that this land is now astronomically more valuable; and that the area is highly-educated, highly-urbanized, and a stone’s throw from some of the finest research institutions in the world, it would seem that today’s geographic advantages lend themselves to technology and R&D enterprises.

    It’s easy to make specious arguments with a dewy-eyed look to an increasingly remote past. Adapting to the present and preparing for the future takes realism, work, willingness to accept change. Rather than fearfully clinging to the past, let’s embrace something new.

    In response to Eva: The changes to the West Berkeley plan are, in fact, very sensitive to the needs of artists and the industry we currently have in West Berkeley. The development of new R&D uses will be, in part, contingent of the provision of community benefits–which will include the preservation of art, craft, and light industrial/manufacturing spaces. Details (and boy howdy there are a lot of them) are available in the documents on the City’s website.

  • Bruce Love

    @Name W/held, Very fair question. Quick off the cuff pointers to things we should be thinking about re West Berkeley:

    Here’s a story about the light industrial implications of innovation in 3D printing. 3D printing isn’t the only story but is easy to think about and helps illustrate a larger point. Even if I don’t convince you about West Berkeley it is fun to know about this stuff:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/technology/14print.html?_r=1

    That example shows a kind of manufacturing that supports but is not in and of itself R&D. We have (2D, conventional) print shops in town: we could have a 3D printing fabrication shop that does bespoke work. That’s a decent business, especially if you combine the cost of equipment with a consulting business side-line to help make designs to be printed.

    Here’s another source of the abstract idea:

    http://fab.cba.mit.edu/content/tools/

    We’re kind of moving past the industrial revolution system of fixed-purpose factories towards flexible manufacturing.

    Think of it this way: You think of a gadget idea for a bike accessory. Briilliant! How can you make it real? You go on Craigslist (or whatever) and find a few designers to help perfect the design. They work on some designs on their computer. You shop out a production run of a few hundred or a thousand to generic fab shops in West Berkeley. You hire workers to assemble and help ship. You sell a bunch locally and/or on-line. You sell design patent rights or similar up stream, if its a product with mass appeal. Lather, rinse, repeat. West Berkeley was envisioned as a very special manufacturing shop with deep historic roots and there is no reason to give up on that vision. Lots of reason to double down. The Plan was originally supposed to help marry town (Oceanside) and gown (Berkeley) and these new trends in light manufacturing can help do that.

    West Berkeley is great for this because of the light industrial zoning, the flat terrain that lets you move raw, partially finished and finished materials aroudnd etween specialized shops, the protectionist zoning, the rail and freeway access, etc.

    Of course, the lower tech basics still matter:

    http://thecrucible.org/

    That kind of skilled support technology is also needed.

    Basically, like the Wired magazine guys are talking about, the “proximate possible” in light manufacturing is going through explosive growth. Computer assisted manufacturing and new breakthroughs in materials are changing the game. 10, 20 or 50 years ago a little dinky factory could only specialize in a few specific products. So it would take a lot of up front investment and, damn, your product better be huge to justify that investment. But, now, we’re quickly going into a time when dinky little factories specialize in very generalized, very re-usable — kind of “lego”-style capabilities. There’s a new renaissance in light manufacturing just starting to emerge. The same way we have print shops that make everything from office fliers to big art pieces — -the same way we have bakeries that make your morning snack but also serve a bunch of restaurants — just that very basic “machine shop” mentality… is just now, at this time in history, starting to expand like crazy into the manufacture of physical stuff. My examples above emphasize ordinary mechanical stuff but the same goes for other fields like electronics. “Bespoke” and “demand driven” work is looking like a big growth industry.

    Oceanside has the right geography, built environment, and location to be at the vanguard.

    We do need “change” but not West Berkeley Plan change. We need a change in attention and private investment priorities. Paving over west berkeley to put up more restaurants, schools, housing, and high-rises is not going to help the city much. Paving it over for some LBL labs or the next BP deal will, like the bayer deal, look good at first but ultimately not help much and leave the built environment in worse shape than it started.

  • Bruce Love

    @Eric, why are you making personal insults? Is that your strongest argument? Snark?

  • Name Withheld

    @ Bruce – What personal insults is Eric making? His assessment of your posts seems dead-on to me. Your posts are rambling and frequently lack a coherent point.

    3D printing is not an industry. Not yet, and probably not ever. 3D printing is currently a fad. 3D printing is great for prototyping and building expensive one-offs, but it isn’t anywhere near the level it needs to be for full-scale production of durable, reasonably priced goods. The story you link to talks about $6,000 plastic shells for prosthetic legs. You talk about Americans discovering our “new place” in the global economy as a result of the recession./depression – Do you think the demand for one-off luxury items is going to go UP, or DOWN as our market adjusts downward?

    And why would you use The Crucible as an example, seeing as how they’re located in Oakland, not Berkeley? If anything they’re an example of the kind of business that could be attracted to Berkeley if we eased restrictions and made the city more business-friendly.

  • TN

    The Crucible used to be located in West Berkeley (West of San Pablo on Ashby).

    They were motivated to move due to building code issues. The inspectors paid special attention to their building after the Crucible had rented out the space to a private party for an evening event. The space was not permitted for that type of use. The event turned out to be a rap party which culminated in a shooting near the intersection of San Pablo and Ashby.

  • Bill

    I don’t think the LBL would be a good thing for Berkeley if for no other reason that it would remove the site from the tax rolls. That being said while biking around the area you can see only a couple of relatively large open parcels left so I’m not sure where the lab would go anyway.

    I also think one of the keys for West Berkeley would be zoning flexibility but I am very leery of both increased height (please not another Fantasy Records building) and mixed use residential zoning.

  • Bruce Love

    @name: if 3D printing (as but one example of what modern manufacturing is about) is just a fad, how come there is a competitive industry selling lots of 3D printers, competing on price and capabilities? 6 figure machines for sale. Lots of them. Competitively. There is also already an industry of “print shops” in that world, easy to find if you look around. Is that a fad? It’s not just some hobbiest thing, it’s huge and illustrates a rapidly accelerating trend. You might think it is a fad if you only look at Maker Faire DYI 3D printing but, really, the state of the art is far beyond that. There’s a more general field of CNC manufacturing equipment and beyond that there’s a new and recent approach to more modularized, automated, and computer controlled manufacturing. “Bits into stuff” as the Wired guys put it. It is already an industry. You are naive if you think something like 3D printing is “a fad”. People are already making a lot of money in it. Its very early stage. It is a huge growth industry. This is the ground floor. Geographically, socially, and by built environment Berkeley is very well positioned. It’s a tremendous fit for the tight space and harsh economics of Berkeley combined with the local surplus of brainiacs who can help to program the flexible factory.

    You asked why I brought up The Crucible. It isn’t because I think they are an exemplary organization, at all. It is because you ought to take note of the kind of fundamental and essential skill sets a large number of young people are taking interest in. And god bless them that’s a wise choice. Those are building block skills for a solid economy.

  • Name Withheld

    “if 3D printing (as but one example of what modern manufacturing is about) is just a fad, how come there is a competitive industry selling lots of 3D printers, competing on price and capabilities?”

    Because companies and individuals want to buy into the fad of 3D printing, and the printer manufacturers are more than happy to supply them. It’s easy to make a lot of money in the beginning of a fad cycle, because people are throwing money around without knowing what they’re doing or having a long-term plan.

    People are making billions of dollars on Justin Beiber. Does that mean that Justin Beiber is now a sustainable industry? Should the City of Berkeley try to get in on the ground floor for massive Justin Beiber manufacturing complexes?

    Just because something is making money right now doesn’t mean it’s going to keep making money in the future. There are some really great things that can be done with 3D printers – I’ve used them before – but betting the farm on the assumption that they’re going to be the next big thing is asinine.

    West Berkeley is filled with vacancies RIGHT NOW. Arguing that we should “stay the course” on the off chance that 3D printing will become a massive industry AND that 3D printing companies will all want to move to Berkeley (as opposed to cheaper cities like Portland or Emeryville) doesn’t make a lick of sense.

  • Alan Tobey

    Bruce, methinks you’ve finally revealed your motivation for all these perfervid posts — could it be you have a personal business connection (in other words a conflict of interest) in this wonderful world of 3D printing that would be just perfect for West Berkeley if the government would only leave it alone?

    Inquiring minds probably don’t really want to know, but why don’t you tell us what your personal motivation is here. I’d be surprised if you have no current or potential future economic stake in the outcome.

  • Bruce Love

    @Name,

    Hah! Yup. That’s a funny way to express the skepticism!

    There is no fad here: it’s solid. One example to consider is Berkeley’s own “Graham Mahcining & Design” which, since 1987, has tackled a big diversity of custom fabrication projects for everyone from Applied Biosystems to Lawrence Berkeley to PG&E and the University of California. (I have no business connection to them. I’m not endorsing or promoting them.)

    The kind of R&D labs people want to build has changed over those 24 years that Graham Machining has been in business. There were plenty of expensive R&D labs built way back in ’87 that today are gone or are dinosaurs. Those labs were “fads”. What stayed constant? The demand for custom fabrication. As always, it is the foundation of “support” businesses doing very basic and adaptable things that last the longest. The same way the town is just lousy with print shops and wifi hot spots compared to most cities.

    The technology of custom fabrication is, over the past few decades, exploding. It keeps getting exponentially less expensive to go from a design on a computer to prototypes and from prototypes to small production runs. Advances in software, robotics and materials account for that growth.

    Hey, thank you for the discussion though. Even if I didn’t convince YOU, you at least helped me think about the idea more. I’m convinced enough myself to now want to start brokering some deals — line up some funding and match it up to the right talent. We can do this right quick. It’s hard being new in town and not really knowing anyone yet :-) Machines and a year’s rent are expensive but I’ll bet the right people and opportunities are around.

  • Name Withheld

    @ Bruce Love

    What’s your point with mentioning Graham Machining & Design? How many businesses like that do you think a community can sustain? How many businesses like that do you think the State can sustain? Even though you seem to think it is, the need for their services is not endless. The demand for custom fabrication isn’t great enough that we should devote an entire section of town to it.

    Beyond that, Graham Machining & Design ISN’T EVEN IN WEST BERKELEY. It appears to be run out of a garage at a house near the intersection of University & Sacramento in CENTRAL Berkeley, and is probably a one- or two-man operation. Why would a business like that need to set up in West Berkeley’s warehouse district? It could just as easily be run out of one of the multitude of empty storefronts on Shattuck that would give them greater access to the public.

    Every single shred of your argument is based on speculation and faith, and ignores the reality of what’s going on in West Berkeley right now.

  • Alan Tobey

    Still ducking the question, Bruce:

    What’s your personal financial stake (current or prospective) in the outcome of the West Berkeley Plan decision?

  • Bruce Love

    @Alan, I didn’t mean to duck. Great question you put:

    “What’s your personal financial stake (current or prospective) in the outcome of the West Berkeley Plan decision?”

    The answer is in two parts:

    1) I am straight up looking to do some start-up investment here in Berkeley. I’m skeptical it can be done. I do hear the horror stories. I think I’m getting kind of a hint of them in the discussion here. If this is representative then I have my doubts. People sure do love to argue. As near as I can tell, everyone in town is the smartest guy in the room. There are other parts of the country a lot easier to work in. I do like the brain power around here. I do like shipping hub around here. I do like that there’s some capital around here but my main investors are from elsewhere. The food’s not bad. I’m looking at West Berkeley as it is and seeing huge opportunity but I’m not sure I can pull it off. I’m looking at the local culture (including but also well beyond Berkeleyside). I like the weather. I hate the earthquake risk but what can you do about that. The pieces fit. I have a good feeling about it, tentatively. I’m not going direct investment here, though, if someone wants to raze the industrial space and put up a generic office park. If in the next year or two West Berkeley is going to turn into a big office park and few dumb high tech R&D labs – more than the dumb ones already there – then I’m wasting my time on a town that 10 years from now is really going to be sorry they went down that path.

    (Maybe you or others could give some sense about the West Berkeley Plan changes proposed. How rapid is this process? I do want to go start meeting and greeting the elected officials and the big guys in town but I normally don’t want waste there or my time until deals are a bit further along. If the plan changes are a runaway freight train it’d be nice to know. Instead I’ll try to work it in some other college town, probably one with a better engineering department! (That crack about engineering departments is a joke! Half a joke. There are other towns with engineering departments about as good is all.))

    2) Berkeley could be a nice place to settle but not if you are going to up lots of biotech crap that makes a huge risk to public safety. I don’ t know if I’d want my kids living near the kind of development West Berkeley seems headed for.

  • http://berkeleydailyplanet.com Becky O’Malley

    Welcome to Berkeley, Bruce. I hope you decide to stay. If you’d like to turn your cogent posts into a publishable essay, please send it to forum@berkeleydailyplanet.com. And take a look at a long description of what happened at Berkeleyside’s business meeting at http://berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2011-01-26/article/37180?headline=What-Business-Wants-from-Berkeley-br-The-Berkeleyside-Business-Forum.

  • http://www.davosnewbies.com Lance Knobel

    Bruce: get in touch if you want to explain the issues in evaluating a start-up in Berkeley at greater length.

  • Name Withheld

    @Bruce – Why can’t your nebulous investment deals exist side-by-side with offices and R&D labs? If you don’t have a coherent idea of what you’d like to do, why are you so adamant that it must be done in a setting surrounded by empty warehouses?

  • Bruce Love

    @Name: I looked at the text of the existing West Berkeley plan and the text of the proposed changes. I think that the proposed changes will, like Berkeleyside is mentioning, raise rents and chase away businesses that could otherwise thrive there. That’d be great for the town except that I also think in less than 10 years, it will leave West Berkeley in worse shape than it is now. It will leave it with a bunch of so-called high-tech and mixed-used urban office and lab space in a situation where the Bay Area is way, way over-supplied with that kind of space. It’s a recipe for a ghost down (but riches for a few folks who get development and short term deals). I’ve seen it happen elsewhere.

    @Lance and @Becky: I’m flattered. Lance, I’ll keep notes as I go along here but I think I also want to pick your brain a bit down the road. I have a sense you know a lot more about what the deal is in this town than I do. And, Becky, I do think spreading around good ideas makes sense so I’ll be in touch but let me think a bit first.

    Thank you Berkeleyside for a great forum. I’d really like to just shut up for a while here till we get to the next stage (IF we get to the next stage). Thank you everyone for the chat, even those who so disagree like @name withheld.

  • Name Withheld

    @Bruce – You didn’t really answer my question, but I understand your concerns. I guess I’m just more tired of seeing vacant warehouses and the ghost town that currently exists than I am of a potential ghost town in the future.

    We’re not talking about mucking around with a vibrant and active area that’s full of life. We’re talking about trying to make changes that will attract businesses to underutilized space. The plan currently being discussed may not be all that great, but stalling and doing nothing isn’t going to solve any problems.

  • Bruce Love

    @Name, I didn’t mean to duck your question I was trying not to blather on too much and inadvertently skipped it. You mean this question, right? “@Bruce – Why can’t your nebulous investment deals exist side-by-side with offices and R&D labs? If you don’t have a coherent idea of what you’d like to do, why are you so adamant that it must be done in a setting surrounded by empty warehouses?”

    There are two problems with that “side by side” approach. One has to do with the impact of a zoning change on development projects. The other has to do with the logistics of light manufacturing.

    On the zoning part: If we remove high restrictions and zone for open ended “R&D” (and that’s a nebulous category), mixed use, and retail then we have a good chance of creating a land rush. There will simply be no incentive at all for preserving light industrial use. The City might enjoy some short term transfer taxes. Some developers will make good bank. Some existing light manufacturing will probably get chased out of town. And look at the lousy shape that commercial real estate of that sort is in. None of us can possibly know for sure but I don’t see how this plan does more than raise some construction dust, enrich some developers, and leave some investors and lenders holding the bag on not very useful property in a West Berkeley ghost town 2.0.

    On the logistics of light manufacturing: There are reasons the flats came to be regarded as they have. Shoreline, rail, flat landscape, and land that is less desirable, geographically, for residences. More recently highways. Internally to this hub, the flat topology and decent enough roads help make it fast, easy, and cheap to move “stuff” around between shops and between shops and the transportation points. The end result creates a “network effect”. If we have N different specialized shops there, then there are N-squared potential connections between them.

    That network effect bit is not just theory. You can see it in operation today, The warehouse on Heinz near Berkeley Bowl lives off of multiple local shops. I think you can also see it in how all of the food related businesses down there inter-relate.

    Jamming light industrial into a dense flat space with good access to transit hubs creates a whole that is more than the simple sum of its parts. That’s why people put it there in the first place (the traumatic changes in the 1970s being a different story, though).

    That “natural use” matters partly because modern changes in manufacturing like 3D printing and improvements to CNC mills make it ever more valuable than it already is to have specialized shops that “link up” flexibly to make production lines. Manufacturing with less mechanical engineering emphasis, like food, has similar patterns.

    It also matters for the zoning question because of what happens when we move in the opposite direction. The domino effect. If you rush into a zoning change that chases away a couple of existing manufacturers, now you stand a good chance of really hurting nearby warehouses, shipping companies, related manufacturers and so on. In turn, when those support businesses start having troubles, that can force still more manufacturers to seek greener pastures where the support is still in place.

    It “would be nice” if you could say “Ok, fill empty places with relaxed zoning. Light industry and this other stuff side by side.” I don’t think that choice is an option. Hand over the empty places for this new kind of development, and there’s a good chance you put a lot of pressure on existing businesses to fold or get out of town. That’s a lot of jobs to game with, and all for a really dubious change in land use policy about land that has been recognized for over a century as very well suited for light industry.

    Every great city, like every great big house, needs fine places to socialize, fine places to prepare and eat food, embracing places to sleep and retreat into privacy — and a good work shop to go make things.

    The proposed zoning changes threaten to eliminate our very fine shop just because it has had a few rough years. (So to speak.)

  • Name Withheld

    Again, I understand your concerns and think they are valid, but things are not running smoothly right now. Berkeley is riddled with business vacancies of all sorts, not just in the West Berkeley flatlands but all throughout our business districts.

    I guess I just don’t understand why you think that keeping things the same as they are now is going to produce anything different than what it’s already produced (lots of vacancies and under-utilization), or how someone who has described themselves as being “new in town” can claim to have such special insight into the way things in Berkeley work.

    I hope you’re right and that West Berkeley will end up seeing a new boom in manufacturing and everything will be all right.

  • Bruce Love

    @Name, Once again thank you for the conversation even if we’re not going to agree.

    I hope that I’m right about manufacturing in West Berkeley, too.

    I am not in favor of “keeping things the same as they are now” I am just very skeptical of the proposed master plan changes.

    The real challenges for me now are at least two:

    1. Trying to advance the kinds of deal I myself want to put together.

    2. Identifying alternative actions that the City can take that make more sense, and offering those to our elected officials and the public. You (and others) have convinced me that there is a real sense of urgency to Do Something at the City level. I’ll think some more about how best I think the City can help business and help itself.

  • Name Withheld

    Thank you for the conversation as well, Bruce. It’s rare to be able to disagree with someone on the internet and not have it devolve into a bunch of pointless name-calling.

    Seeing as how I’m someone who works in the idea-generating side of product design/manufacture I may very well end up being a part of a revitalized manufacturing boom if it ever happens in Berkeley. It would be nice to not have to commute into San Francisco for work every day. :)

  • Fran Haselsteiner

    A four percent vacancy rate hardly sounds like a dead zone. Loss of property taxes is nothing to sneeze at, either.

    As one who actually resides in West Berkeley, I’m concerned about R&D activities in a liquefaction zone. As I recall, the Bayer site was constructed with a double hull in case of explosion. Every once in a while we hear a test emergency broadcast telling us to stay inside.
    What potential exposures would Berkeley residents have if LBNL and other labs locate here? A short visit on the Internet reveals that the area that interests LBNL is poorly compacted sand used as fill. Here’s a map: http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2002/of02-296/. The USGS has done good studies of the area as well.

  • Bruce Love

    @Fran,

    Personally, I’m very concerned about already present research in West Berkeley that involves creating GMO micro-organisms. Having visited one of the key labs and having observed related practices up the hill, I am confident that the “containment” procedures used by LBL and Cal are quite poor. Discussions with biologists doing the work emphasized to me that they rely on the tendency of the organisms they make to be “weak” (to have very poor chances of survival in the environment). Unfortunately, while those assumptions go way back in time in this line of research (and have some basis), recent peer reviewed published research has called those safety assumptions into question and there does not appear to be any monitoring (at least that I could discover) of the success of containment practices. Worrying about “lab escapes” in the absence of an earthquake or similar disaster seems appropriate to me and I don’t think the existing labs go nearly far enough in that direction. In the event of an earthquake, and/or fire or similar there are no special containment protections in place or special emergency response preparation for this GMO research.

    And here you were just worried noxious chemicals, explosions and such :-)

  • Fran Haselsteiner

    Thanks for reinforcing my paranoia ;-). As a matter of fact, when I heard about a UC Berkeley biological lab locating in rented space on Heinz (I believe) maybe five years ago, I contacted my council representative, Darryl Moore, who didn’t know about it and said he would look into it. And that’s the last I ever heard about it.

  • Alan Tobey

    I suppose it’s inevitable that all discussions of science-related activities in Berkeley “advance” to the Doctor Frankenstein level of paranoid argument. Throw in potential earthquake dangers and you’ve created a perfect argument for driving all R&D out of Berkeley.

    It should be obvious but I’ll state it anyway: despite the Bayer precedent the predominant new R&D will not be scary wet-lab biotech (which is no danger anyway) but the more product-oriented work that companies like Peerless Lighting are now carrying out. Maybe even some 3D on-demand work of the sort Bruce favors. And, of course, earthquake engineering has advanced just a bit since 1906 (and even 1989).

    But of course we’ll continue to hear such “crack of doom” arguments in isolation — the single so-far-ignored fatal flaw everybody’s ignored so far. It’s the best practice of the BANANA contingent — Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything — that so cheerfully keeps trying to protect us from the future. For all our sakes, of course.

  • Bruce Love

    @Alan Tobey, your name calling and baseless ridicule also applies to, for example, a researcher from Lawrence Berkeley who has written about the risks for the DOE (Peter Lichty). You are ridiculing the containment efforts of industrial designers building a plant on the peninsula (LS9). You are ignoring various research that calls into question the theoretical basis of the safety protocols R&D labs commonly use today. You are ignoring thousands of documented cases of in which U.S. synthetic bio labs infected people since the 1970s. You are ignoring the unique risk of synthetic organisms that when malevolent ones do escape and succeed in colonizing the larger environment, there is not likely any way to put the cat back in the bag.

    I think it poisons the democratic process in Berkeley if your rhetoric about synthetic biology R&D safety is taken seriously.

    Your notion about Peerless is interesting. I have two quick concerns about that that maybe you might have answers for:

    1) Peerless was acquired and the parent company moved the manufacturing to less expensive places elsewhere in the US and Mexico. Other than in the short term, why would you expect the parent company to not seek to consolidate the R&D with other acquisitions in a similar way? This reminds me, by analogy, to Scharffenberger Chocolate’s course: the new parent company ships out manufacturing first but supports the acquired company’s founders to stay put for a while. And then eventually, usually, it doesn’t. The acquiring company finds it easiest to first move manufacturing, then hangs on to historic R&D long enough to learn the historic practices, and then lets it go.

    2) Peerless’ presence in Berkeley goes way back. Their interest in keeping (and perhaps growing) R&D in Berkeley appears on the surface tied to that history. Are new companies likely to come to town with similar demands? If not, how will we get mostly companies “like Peerless”? Should we overlook the threat of dominance by short term LBL and Cal and friends demand for labs for synthetic biology and nanotech research?

  • Fran Haselsteiner

    The former American Soil Products tract, one of the proposed LBNL sites, is at 2222 Third Street. While the site would have to be bored, It does appear to be within the liquefaction/landfill zone mapped in the following USGS documents: http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2002/of02-296/

    http://earthquake.usgs.gov/people/tomholzer/papers/Holzer_DRC_2003.pdf

    http://earthquake.usgs.gov/people/tomholzer/papers/Holzer_1906_Spectra_2006.pdf

  • Alan Tobey

    Bruce,

    First please note that I don’t do ad hominem attacks — I describe people’s behavior and conclusions but not their moral character.

    Second, since I have an (admittedly rather ancient) molecular biology degree from MIT I feel confident in assessing presumptive biohazards. And in fact I’ve been doing considerable research on second-generation biofuels as potential investments, so I do know my peninsula LS9’s from my Emeryville Amyris’s from my Louisiana Lanzatechs. Surely we cannot prove any biology research (traditional or synthetic) is absolutely safe in all possible conditions, but no one is proposing building open synthetic-algae fermentation ponds west of San Pablo. We can craft safeguards enough that we need not prevent ALL new R&D in W Berk — much or most of which, again, is not likely to be bio-focused. How is your repeated raising of uncontextual Franken-fears a responsible contribution to the discussion?

    Peerless is a good example of what economists call “comparative advantage” — succeed by doing what you’re best at. Clearly Berkeley has a comparative advantage in researching things more than it does in making things, so the odds favor Peerless’ R&D sticking around but the factory never returning. No sure thing, of course. But we don’t need our local version of industrial policy to lock in forever our choices of which fields to allow or ban. The private market will tell us that, if we provide planning that doesn’t get too much in the way.

  • Bruce Love

    @Alan, in my understanding it is commonly understood as an “ad hominem” argument — a logical fallacy in addition to a mere insult — to say in a context like this such things as “I suppose it’s inevitable that all discussions of science-related activities in Berkeley “advance” to the Doctor Frankenstein level of paranoid argument.” and “But of course we’ll continue to hear such “crack of doom” arguments in isolation — the single so-far-ignored fatal flaw everybody’s ignored so far. It’s the best practice of the BANANA contingent — Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything — that so cheerfully keeps trying to protect us from the future. For all our sakes, of course.”

    In both you’ve managed to combine a straw-man (nobody said build absolutely nothing, nobody said anything about “crack of doom”, nobody said that everyone was overlooking these risks – the opposite was said, etc.) you’ve combined those straw-men with the obvious ad hominems (like “paranoid” and “BANANAS”).

    People commenting in various threads have started to discuss what civility means in a context like Berkeleyside. Good. I don’t think you should be censored, only discussed, but I think you’ve crossed well over the line of civility and constructive expression.

    Berkeley, by the way, has been one of the leaders in creating synthetic algae. No, we haven’t built big ponds. I have been shown things like open barrels of the stuff sitting outdoors, unguarded, near storm drains, for months on end. You seem to agree that big ponds of the stuff would be bad around here but seem to disregard how close we come to that by having poorly contained experiments just up the storm drains from, for example, Aquatic Park.

    Speaking to the larger group of readers:

    I don’t claim that the safety issues of the synthetic biology research in Berkeley, or the nanotech research are easy to evaluate. I don’t claim the city’s handling of West Berkeley is easy. I think there are interesting questions and there are a lot of facts and informed conjectures to consider. I think there is good room for first person reports about simple factual claims (like, gee those labs looked pretty darn insecure when I visited!).

    I don’t think, though, that it helps much to polarize and insult one another in the ways that Alan seems to me to be doing.

  • Annie Nahmaus

    ongtime West Berkeley Resident here –

    I missed the most recent council meetings regarding the development of aquatic park. I saw a website which purported that development had the majority of (if not unanimity) support to go ahead and make the area an R&D zoned area for 75 ft buildings (not sure of the specifics). However, I was searching through the threads to see where any W. Berkeley residents were concerned. I didn’t see m(any).

    I remember when Fourth Street was very small and quaint (80s) – and now it resembles Broadway Plaza in Walnut Creek. Good heavens — now an Apple Store for heaven’s sake. There are more Audis and BMWs driving really fast through the industrial areas of fourth street. Ok. Fine. I don’t mind a little gentrification. I’m all for the pedestrianization of the are (in addition to the commercialization). (BUT) That’s not to say that I haven’t been concerned that more “BUSINESS OFFICES” what exactly do these 75 foot buildings / offices entail?

    Yes — how strangely out of place the Fantasy Recording Studio stands monolithically against all of the shorter buildings around it. Imagine, West Berkeley Residents, if you will — Emeryville at the Estuary — Mountainview packed onto one small strip —– San Jose like traffic all packed onto one Exit offramp to and from their jobs.

    Oh, wait — but perhaps these companies will employ a plethora of H1B visas. Why? Because “Americans aren’t qualified in the areas of math and science” like people from India and China are (they’re cheaper too).

    Taxes: If I was a big business looking to relocate, I’d want incentives — and the biggest incentives are Tax Breaks. Let’s see — how much tax opportunity was reaped from Bayer? I really don’t know, but I’m willing to bet that they were given some pretty huge tax breaks which didn’t really amount to much benefit for Berkeley. hint: Real Estate located near elementary schools goes down in price. Thank you Bayer, for the Rosa Parks Elementary School.

    Let’s consider some things: health, safety, and general welfare of the community – wow, thanks — Bio / Pharma / R&D right next to me where I live. Add the CO2 emissions from the freeway and the blocking of the sun (with the 75 foot buildings), not to mention obstruction of the beauty and natural waterways that were basically provided here for free by the acts of nature (not talking about the estuary, but that’s not a bad view either) – talking about the Bay.

    Where are all of these new “employees” going to park? 7th street is already the bumper to bumper LA expressway at rush hour. These Bimmers and Audis are autobahning down the far ends of 4th street like they think no one could be walking around.

    How much traffic can 6th street, the University Ave overpass, and 7th street sustain? Do you all propose to build a 75 foot high parking garage on top of the estuary? Do you also propose to make West Berkeley another suburban strip mall freeway exit destination?

    West Berkeley is a “Community” of residents — please remember this. People “live” here — we breathe the air that comes off of the 80 eastshore freeway and the steam that comes out of the iron foundry. Yes, it is light industrial, but measures can be taken that ensure that carbon footprints can be lessened — not increased by these new measures to utilize the are.

    I don’t like the idea of 75 foot buildings. There is a political reason why the area along the Eastshore freeway is barren. I heard the story about some gray haired ladies protesting to keep the view clear — bravo! We’re now a nation of paper pushers — we make nothing anymore. I was walking around West Berkeley and the fact that there isn’t really any manufacturing going on here really struck home as I saw all of the empty warehouses (that could have been because it was Sunday -) At any rate, if Berkeley really wanted to be cutting edge — they could encourage real innovative manufacturing — like hybrid energy R&D, alternative transportation R&D, public transportation company start-up R&D, bicycle manufacturers, Environmentally friendly Boating Shuttle R&D, A-M-E-R-I-C-A-N independent spirit bootstrap R&D, Technology – – – Wait . . . . aren’t most pharmaceutical companies further away from the population (unless you’re Richmond or NJ?)

    Maybe I’m being a NIMBY myself, but I don’t see any Pharma Companies in the Berkeley Hills. There’s land up there — the Berkeley Rose Garden needs an upgrade — kinda dated, folks. Why not put some R&D in the Berkeley Hills? Let’s put some Iron Foundries in the Elmwood —
    What I’m saying is that we need B-A-L-A-N-C-E…. and I want to make sure that West Berkeley doesn’t simply become the “dumping ground” for what those in the Hills don’t want in “their neighborhood.” I’ll be watching and making noise.

    – Resident who loves West Berkeley

  • The Sharkey

    I know three months have passed since you made this comment, Mr. Lord, but I really can’t believe that someone who’s lived in Berkeley for DECADES would lie and say he was “new in town” just to try to make a point. For shame, Thomas. For shame.